Sunday, 20 May 2012

Hezbollah’s Unorthodox Fans

Reem Haidar - the woman who during the 2006 war appeared on TV asking for Nasrallah’s cloak to be given to the Lebanese people as a blessing and then received it

Fayyad says that Hezbollah is not troubled by the fact that it has unveiled women among its supporters because that is a private matter for those women. (Photo: Bilal Jawich)
Published Saturday, May 19, 2012

As an openly religious organization, Hezbollah promotes strict adherence to Islamic Sharia among its members. This translates into a largely homogeneous wardrobe, specially among women, making those who dress differently stand out in a Hezbollah crowd.

When Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s speeches end, the crowds gather their stuff, grab their children and leave the square. Only Randa Ghulam stays behind.

She enthusiastically waves to the image of Sayyid Hassan on the screen, as he often addresses crowds through a video-feed due to security.

“I wave to tell him I’m here, as usual I’ve came to support him. Of course he knows that a lot of people support him but I feel that he needs to see me here,” says Ghulam.

One time, she kept on waving at him by herself before he disappeared off the screen and he smiled. She felt as though he was thanking her. This smile was for her. She is sure of it even though people make fun of her story.

Who is Randa Ghulam? Perhaps not many people know her by name, but many do know the woman with the blond hair and colored eyes that the cameras zoom in on during most Hezbollah festivals.
But why her? When the media turned their cameras on her, they did not know that she was Christian, which would have made her even more intriguing. What caught their attention was her hair, uncovered for everyone to see, and her great enthusiasm.

Generally speaking, Ghulam does not look like other women at Hezbollah’s celebrations. Large festivals usually attract all kinds of people, but Ashura nights and occasions held at Sayyid al-Shuhada Complex do not normally have a diverse audience.

How does Hezbollah view its unveiled female supporters? Did the party have to adjust its founding discourse in order to attract them? And how does it balance between its internal and external demands?
After Hezbollah’s victory in 2000, all Lebanese found in the withdrawal of the Israelis a reason to celebrate. This enhanced the party’s popularity far beyond its membership.

According to researcher and sociology professor, Huda Rizk, Hezbollah continued to adopt a somewhat hardline religious discourse until 2004, when the question of extending former Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s term was proposed. In view of this political situation, Hezbollah realized that it needed wider public support to maintain its influence. In Rizk’s opinion, this was when the party clearly turned its attention to local communities.

MP Ali Fayyad, from Hezbollah’s Loyalty to the Resistance parliamentary bloc, argues that “Hizbollah developed its Lebanese and Arab discourse... Its discourse became less ideological and more political and open.”

He adds: “It is true the party has certain religious and political standards for joining it, but the social milieu that makes up its supporters has become very large and is not restricted to the Shia sect. The resistance aspect of the party meets the expectations of a large number of Lebanese people across sects.”

Fayyad says that Hezbollah is not troubled by the fact that it has unveiled women among its supporters because that is a private matter for those women.

From a certain perspective, the party considers this phenomenon a positive one. It shows that the party’s supporters are not monolithic but rather come from different backgrounds.

Reem Haidar
Rizk says that from a media perspective, i.e. externally, the party is open to unveiled women and accepts them because it needs them to show an image of openness in the Arab and Western worlds and it needs their political support.
But what kind of relationship can the party develop with unveiled women?

Here the situation is different. The steps that the party can take towards its unveiled women, so to speak, is quite limited.
For example its relationship with Reem Haidar - the woman who during the 2006 war appeared on TV asking for Nasrallah’s cloak to be given to the Lebanese people as a blessing and then received it - who after all the media fanfare was limited to paying tributes.

Despite her support for the resistance, Haidar was not able to enter the party’s headquarters because certain standards are required.

Rizk says “the party wants to make sure that people who are socially different from it are not hostile to it. But if you are an unveiled Shia woman, then it’s a different story. Such a woman can not be brought into prominence in the party because she can not be a role model.”

There are many unveiled women like Haidar that support the resistance and its leader. For some of them, the cause and the idea of resistance take priority, while others fall under the spell of Nasrallah and his charisma.

Nasrallah is perceived by women as very different from the religiously strict people in the party that reject unveiled women. For them, Nasrallah represents the image of openness in the party and will accept them as they are.

But no matter how enthusiastic these women are in their desire to serve the resistance, there will not be a place for them in the ranks of the party.

Six years after her story, Haidar says that having realized she will not be allowed to do any useful work, she no longer wants to be the “party’s Cinderella,” i.e., that girl that becomes famous because of the prince and that’s it.

As for Ghulam, her story with Nasrallah is far from over. From “outside,” she does not know how to support the resistance and especially its leader. In her opinion, all she can do is attend all the party’s public events.

She says she has an obsession with “Sayyid Hassan.” Every free minute she has she thinks about him. She wonders, “is he OK? Is he eating? Is he drinking? Is he breathing?”

She lives for the dream of meeting him. She goes to the party’s celebrations so he might see her as she sees him.

For her, he is “a gift from God, he is a brother and a father and a son and a symbol of purity.”

Nasrallah, who himself served on the front and gave his son as a martyr, is the symbol of resistance.
She lights a candle for him every time she prays and on his birthday, August 31, she lights as many candles as his age on a special cake.

Among the pictures she has of him at her house, one has a green and red background and she puts it on top of the Christmas tree instead of a star.

When asked if she would have had the same views about the resistance had someone other than Nasrallah been the secretary-general of Hezbollah. She says: “Of course, if he had the same beliefs, character, passion and strong personality!”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this Blog!

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